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      Pelican Bay, California: Worse than Guantanamo?

      Isolation exercise yard, Secure Housing Unit, Pelican Bay State Prison | Crescent City, California (Photo by Richard Ross)Like Guantanamo, Pelican Bay is both an isolated place of spectacular beauty and the site of barbarous prison cruelty. One is the dumping ground of the US global war on terrorism, the other a detainee dungeon for the war on gangs in California.

      Conditions arguably are better at Guantanamo than Pelican Bay. Hundreds of detainees at Guantanamo have been released in the past decade. The detainees may have limited access to lawyers, but those lawyers are first-rate in terms of human rights work. The Guantanamo inmates may be muted, but coverage of their conditions has been carried continuously in the global media. In 2008, both Barack Obama and John McCain called for the closing of Guantanamo and bans on torture.

      There are over 3,000 inmates at the Pelican Bay super-max prison compared to 171 remaining at Guantanamo, down from nearly 800 a decade ago. About one thousand of Pelican Bay’s inmates exist in permanent isolation in the so-called Secure Housing Unit (SHU). The prisoners are in tiny cells more than 22 hours per day, and allowed 90 minutes of exercise – again, alone – in a small walled-in space.

      Some prisoners in Pelican Bay have been confined there for two decades. In 1995 a federal judge compared conditions as “the equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe.” Pelican Bay is an epicenter of the crisis, with 25,000 inmates held in isolation across the US and another 50-80,000 in “restricted segregation units”, in violation of the formal recommendations of a 2006 national task force on reforms (See “Hellhole,” New Yorker, March 30, 2009).

      Like Guantanamo, the Pelican Bay crisis originated with a violent uprising onerous conditions and repressive authorities – in this case, revolts by California prison inmates in the 1970s. In the most serious of those revolts, in 1970, inmate George Jackson’s 17-year old brother, Jonathan, was killed along with three others, including a Marin judge (Associated Press, August, 1970). In 1971, three San Quentin guards were killed during a prison escape attempt by Jackson, who died along with a fellow prisoner (Los Angeles Times, April, 1986).

      The reaction of the guards and prison authorities was ferocious, breeding even more repressive conditions. The main demand of those prisoners, aimed at gaining dignity and a more orderly process, was for recognition of a bargaining unit to resolve their grievances. They were treated instead like a terrorist plague. Between 1989 and 1994 alone, the guards in California prisons killed 24 inmates and wounded 175. Even after a public outcry, another 12 inmates were shot dead and 32 more were wounded in the following four years. Of the 44 serious or fatal shootings between 1994 and 1999, only one of the suspected inmates was found to be armed or inflicting serious harm, no guards were in peril, and none of the casualties occurred during an escape attempt (Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1998).

      The Pelican SHU appears to be a direct outgrowth of this long-faded war. One former associate of George Jackson, Hugo Pinell, has survived in solitary for over 20 years. Those earlier prison rebels have been replaced by a massive influx of gang members or alleged gang members swept up in California’s unprecedented “war on gangs” of the past 20 years. Half those in the SHU are alleged to be gang members whose only remedy is to “debrief” – or snitch – against other inmates or on themselves, which would leave them or their families vulnerable to immediate violent retaliation, in other words, a death sentence.

      Holding cells, general population area, Secure Housing Unit, Pelican Bay State Prison | Crescent City, California (Photo by Richard Ross)I visited SHU prisoners in Pelican Bay while I was a state senator, and felt the fearful claustrophobia of being in a gulag. Men, for example, crouched behind thick glass windows staring at me with eyes of madness. Men with no human contact walking in circles and pounding walls. Becoming screaming vegetables. Not that life at Pelican Bay outside the SHU was tolerable. I met a young man from my Senate district, Brandon Hein, who was serving life without possibility of parole, for a 1995 “felony murder.” Brandon was present at a teenage fight in an Agoura Hills backyard in which one young man was stabbed with a pocket knife and died of bleeding. Under the “felony murder” rule, anyone participating in a felony –  in this case, conspiracy to steal marijuana - where someone is murdered is equally guilty of the crime. Brandon, whose sentence was reduced to at least 29 years, spoke candidly of the harsh conditions throughout the institution, where he was considered a model inmate. In the prison’s racial classification system, he said, he might be better off as a “Mexican” than a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.

      Against this background, the inmates at Pelican Bay launched a hunger strike this April, which may resume in late September. Their five demands are rationale, even moderate, including: [1] making isolation/segregation a last resort, consistent with the findings of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons, [2] adequate food, and [3] “constructive programming”, including one phone call per week, longer visiting hours, and access to art supplies, exercise equipment and television programs.

      Read the Pelican inmates own communication here.

      This long war should be ended rationally where it began, in California, three decades ago. Instead, like the war on terrorism, prison reformers argue that public fear is being manipulated by interest groups to continue an unconstitutional, expensive, wasteful and unnecessary vendetta.


      The key legislator on prison reform and funding is Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley). For updates on litigation efforts, please see the Prison Law Office.

      For further background, see Street Wars, a signed copy of which can be yours for a tax-deductible donation of $25 or more to the Peace and Justice Resource Center.

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